First posted on June 22th, 2011 on The Retroist Retro Blog and Podcast - CW post link
Recently the subject of one of my cruel experiments and I got to talking. And (as it tends to) the topic soon turned to the Transformers. I was waxing philosophically about the nature of the transforming creatures and of their origin when the test subject had the nerve to try to correct me! As if I didn’t know the 80’s culture like the back of my iron fist! I destroyed him of course, but it got me to thinking. How many other people are walking around with crazy misguided ideas as to how their retro icons got their start. In the words of Marvin Clarence (MC) Hammer; “Sound the bell, school’s in sucka!”
As anyone who is ANYONE already knows the transformers began as vehicles. To be more specific, they began as a semi truck. In the opening scene of the pilot episode, A truck driver hauling a heavy load for TFG1 industries decides to take a shortcut onto a road that is much rougher than he anticipated. Being that he is in the middle of the desert with no sign of civilization for miles and no spare on hand; he, of course, blows a tire. As he begins to walk hopelessly through the wasteland with hopes of a gas station or at least another traveler, he trips over something buried in the dirt, partially uncovering it. When he looks down to see the source of his tumble he realizes to his shock that the object appears to be a truck tire. He frantically digs out the remainder of the tire and is amazed to find that the tire is whole and in incredible condition, rim and all! As he inspects what he believed to be a brand new tire he realizes that although it is in perfect condition the tire appears to be old. Very old. Along the edge of the rim are strange ruins that seem to hum with an otherworldly aura. Despite all this the driver still decides to install the mystery wheel onto his truck. As he places the tire on the truck an amazing transformation takes place. What was once a large normal looking red and blue semi truck became a large normal looking red and blue semi truck with a mind! And a name, apparently; Optimus. This truck had became self aware and decided that he is a leader! That he is a hero! Leaving his driver stranded in the dessert, Optimus embarks on a journey to find his place in the world.
For weeks after being given life by the ancient truck tire of lore, Optimus was driven by a sense of purpose, he knew that he must do good, and stop evil by whatever means possible. Being that he was only a semi truck, that mostly meant that he ran a lot of people over. He ran over murderers, pick pockets, jay walkers, and when he encountered drivers of other semis who were speeding, he would run them off the road sending them to a fiery explosion. Sure he stopped a lot of evil but he felt empty inside. After one week Optimus met a small car, a white Volkswagen Moth, ironically named Bumblebee. Bumblebee had always wanted to be a hero car but had until then been to cowardly. Optimus and Bumblebee soon became the best of friends. One day Optimus and Bumblebee were driving down the road looking for adventure when they pulled into what seemed like a normal looking gas station, but the gas station attendant was anything but normal. For this was the Sorcerer Mike who informed Optimus that he was no ordinary magic living truck. He was in reality Optimus Prime! Hero truck of Legend, and guardian of Autobot castle! He then produced an enchanted sword from beneath a pile of oily rags and place it onto Optimus’s fender. Optimus recited the words that in his heart he had known all along. “By the power of Autobot…I am Prime!” Suddenly Optimus seemed to unfold from himself and became an upright sword wielding robot. The most powerful semi in the universe! He then pointed his sword at Bumblebee (his fearless friend) sending a fabulous beam of energy and turning him into the mighty Battle-Bee! The rest as they say is history. Optimus Prime and Battle-Bee amassed an army of robot vehicle creatures through an aggressive online publicity campaign. Together they defended the secrets of Castle Autobot from Decepticons, a terrorist organization bent on world domination led by Megatron Commander. All the while the Transformers try desperately to blend into human society. Optimus Prime can, at will, change from robot to truck by simply touching his high tech earring and saying the words “Start your engines Synergy!”
The driving plotline of the series was the concept that the good and bad robot cars would fight over a natural material that was incredibly plentiful on Earth. This material was called Energon and acted as fuel, food, and lifeblood to the Transformers. In every episode Optimus Prime and his brave army of robots would think of new suspenseful and entertaining ways to defend Earth and keep the Energon safe. To give you a little background on how Energon works I thought I would take a moment to describe the technical aspects for you. The fuel is harvested and then “digested” through an intense industrial process wherein each piece of Energon is drawn into the intake valve and rendered through the gears of the engine. It is then pulled apart by miniature arms inside the vehicle housing. The individual shreds of Energon are then seared by flame and liquefied in the Transformer’s acid tank. Energon (or translated into English “humans”) are a very important natural recourse for the Robots.
As if that amazing television premise wasn’t enough, a toy line was introduced in hopes to extend the Transformers popularity into the retail world. One could buy the characters in either robot form or vehicle form. Sales proved to be very disappointing until one day, toy designer Kevin Solo took his children to McDonalds for dinner and noticed the deep interest the kids took over the toys in their happy meals. The toys were the latest in the wildly popular Transfood series. They featured robot characters that could be changed (like a puzzle) into popular McDonald’s menu items; Egg McMuffin, Chicken Nuggets, Soft Drink Cup, Big Mac etc. Suddenly inspiration struck! What if the Transformer toys could actually transform! Kids would no longer have to make their “truck” Optimus Prime drive behind a box and come out a “robot” on the other side! From then on, the popularity of the toys spread like wildfire. Every kind of vehicle you could think of was given a robot counterpart and made into a toy. And each individual vehicle could then be connected together (each with their own “pilot“) to create one gigantic sword wielding robot to defend the transforming universe. An idea was offered up by one executive, that you could use robot animals instead of vehicles. But the idea of Beast Transformers was so ridiculous that he was immediately fired and banned from working in the cartoon or toy industries ever again.
Transformers remained popular throughout most of the 80’s and 90’s. The property has had several incarnations over the years including a late 80’s sitcom where select Transformers played yuppie office workers at an automobile factory, and a mid-90’s animated series that took the transformers into the world of surfing, skateboarding and BMX! Although they constantly tried to re-invent themselves it was decided that in order to preserve the integrity and tradition of Transformers, there would never be a live action movie based on the Transformers franchise.
And I hope that in writing this I have helped in my own modest way to preserve the memory of a fine pop culture institution. And I hope all of you have learned a little more about this thing we call “M.A.S.K”….or whatever I was talking about. Nevertheless I hope this clears things up, now if you don’t mind I simply must get back to my experiments. Please do close the door on your way out and…don’t mind the screams.